I’ve been called out by a good and respectable friend for my ridicule of religion. It’s something that we atheists hear pretty often: how disrespectful we are. As if we have no reason and we’re just being mean to kindly, good, God-lovin’ folk. We’re lording our Science over them and mocking them just to get our kicks over their “primitive” beliefs. However, I think a lot of people don’t understand why this happens and some back-story is necessary.
First off, let me defend my friend and say that he is one of the few Christians I have encountered who does not disparage atheists and he’s an exceptionally honest and respectable individual. This article isn’t even directed at him so much as the many who distrust and vilify atheists for the mere crime of not sharing their beliefs. However, some things here might give him some perspective he might not have otherwise considered. That’s more the intent of this, but I figured I’d kill a few birds with one stone.
I should begin by explaining what atheism is, to clear up a massive social misconception. It is not the belief that God does not exist. Let that sink in. It is a lack of belief in a deity. That’s all. Nothing more. There quite literally is no belief in atheism which is why it can’t be considered a religion. It’s been said that atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color.
Now, many atheists are also anti-theists, which means they are against a belief in god. The two stances are separate, even if they are often hand in hand. I’m not against the simple belief in a god and I have no issue with Deists, for instance. I also take the stance that no one knows whether or not a god exists. I don’t claim there is none, though I do find it unlikely. Personally, I would go as far as to say that I believe the Christian god does not exist, but who knows, there may be some kind of consciousness out there. A great deal of atheists are simply of the position that we would be willing to believe in a god if there were evidence of one.
However, if we are open about our lack of belief in public, well, it’s a lot like being gay, I imagine. We are vilified, hated, feared, demonized, dehumanized and attacked quite vehemently. An openly atheist person could not get elected to any major office in this country. In fact, some State constitutions require a belief in god in order to be elected. It’s like being black a century ago, except that our atheism isn’t readily apparent. We have the luxury of being able to fake it, which we must sometimes do for our social survival.
We’ve had to shut up for so long while we hear ourselves being disparaged left and right. If we were to say “Hey, I’m an atheist, and I find your words insulting,” we are shouted down and often hated. The internet has been a “godsend” for us because it finally allowed us to anonymously talk about reason and atheism and who and what we really are, which is people, just like everyone else.
I became atheist somewhat late in life. I think I finally realized I was atheist around age 36. Prior to that, I was what I called “Spiritual, but not religious”. Basically, I was into a mishmash of pagan, Buddhist and New Age stuff and I would often poke fun at atheists and talk about how science had it all wrong and had the common misconceptions about what atheism is and how science works. I was absolutely certain that some kind of consciousness or god existed. I would assume that anyone who didn’t believe as I did was “unevolved”. Though a central tenet of my spirituality was non-judgment, I was pretty judgmental.
However, I’d always said that I wanted to know the truth, whatever it may be, even if it shattered my most cherished beliefs. I started exploring science, and found many of my beliefs outright debunked. Dowsing, the efficacy of prayer, homepathic medicine, and many other things had to be discarded due to very solid evidence that they don’t work. Eventually I started coming up to a wall and had to make a choice. I could either accept the evidence, or reject reality. I chose reality. I chose not having answers to some big questions rather than insisting I had the answer, but that you had to just get it, or you weren’t highly evolved enough.
I look back at how I used to think and I’m ashamed and more than a little embarrassed. But, I also know what it’s like to think ill of atheists and disparage science while knowing next to nothing about either. You simply can’t reason with people who believe like that. There’s not anything you can say that will penetrate the wall of stuff that people will pull out of their asses to defend their beliefs. Believe me, I was rather adept at the psychosomatic practice of making shit up and believing wholeheartedly that I was right.
For a great deal of atheists, we started out with fervent belief, and once we did our research and came to the conclusion that the only honest position is “I don’t know” regarding god, we are then faced with a massive feeling of betrayal. Our entire society helps perpetrate a lot of inconsistent and unfounded beliefs and also perpetuates the belief that those who do not have these beliefs are wrong and misguided at best, and on top of that, probably very bad, even dangerous people.
Imagine being in a room your whole life, and you’re told that those who look out the window are bad people, and that only lies and evil exist on the other side of that window. But you sneak peeks, and eventually find yourself observing it at length, and it becomes apparent that you were lied to by everyone else in the room. Some of them even knew they were lying, but they have to protect themselves, so they played along. You finally say, “Just look out the window…there’s nothing evil there, it’s just trees and sky and things. We’ve been lied to!” The mob jumps all over you, because you dared to question what everyone “knows”. You looked where you shouldn’t have, and it doesn’t matter that you found out a liberating truth, you broke the taboo of looking out the window. The rules are more important than reality. You aren’t supposed to question or disobey. You are outcast and hated for doing nothing more than peeking out of a fucking window.
Society is like being in that room. So many things that we are expected to believe don’t hold up to scrutiny when actually examined objectively. But, we’re the bad ones for doing so. We try to explain things like evolution and we’re treated like we’re the ones with tinfoil hats. However, if people simply looked at the vast collection of evidence which makes evolution not a belief, but a very solid, provable and observable fact, they might understand. They just have to look out the window from the room of their beliefs and realized that they have been lied to about many other things.
This has been the case throughout history. Galileo had to endure house arrest for life for trying to explain the fact that the earth revolves around the sun and is not the center of the universe. He was right, and was imprisoned for it because he dared to look out the window. Giordano Bruno was actually executed for espousing similar discoveries. What belief can be correct that dares not be questioned?
Imagine how it would feel to know, factually, provably, with massive evidence on your side that something is factual, but it goes against what you were taught all your life. Everyone around you seems to be in this haze and you try to clear up that haze just a little and are treated like you killed and ate their baby. Imagine how monumentally frustrating that is.
All these centuries, even millenia, the people who applied science and truly tried to discover how the universe really works with the intent of helping all of humanity understand these things and move forward…these people have been the enemy.
These days, we have the technology to instantly share new evidence of various things as they come forward and the gaps in our knowledge are very quickly getting smaller, yet there are still millions who believe that this is wrong. Understanding reality is wrong. Is there a more clear definition of insanity?
This overwhelming ignorance is what we contend with on a daily basis, and quite frankly, I’m amazed at the composure with which our most public spokespeople handle it. People like Hitchens and Dawkins are called “testy” and “stern” and “condescending”. Believe me, they could be much worse. They could be hateful and fanatical, like those who vilify them. If they take part in mockery from time to time, are they really so bad?
Are atheists supposed to continue to shut up and not question? Are we to treat those who vilify us with kid gloves? Really? No. Fuck that. When we have people bombing abortion clinics, picketing funerals, preaching against condom use in AIDS-ridden areas, and insisting that their mythology replace sound science in the classroom, we should not shut up. Science may have been used in the creation of things like the atomic bomb, but it is the religious fanatics that are so eager to use them.
To have modern technology in the hands of those whose understanding of the universe is 2000 years behind the times is dangerous. Leaving decisions of policy with those who consult the stars rather than sound science is applied ignorance. In these days, if people choose to hold on to the beliefs of desert tribesmen from 2000 years ago, they are welcome to do so, however they should not expect to be taken seriously. With how they have treated everyone throughout history who dared to question, and were right, I think they can take a little ridicule. You can’t violently oppress a mindset for so long and then expect not to be harshly criticized and even mocked especially when the evidence is on the side of those who questioned. Reality happens to have a scientific bias.
When we are defending proven facts against those who never bothered to look at the evidence, we know we are right on certain specific things. These days, if anyone tries to claim that the sun revolves around the earth, even almost all of the religious people would ridicule them. That the boat we are in with things like evolution today. We know it happens, we know how it happens, there is no question. We know for a fact that we are right on this issue and we can prove it. Yet we have to deal with a vast number of people, even those who run for President, who reject this very solid fact. That our heads are not exploding in frustration and that we are not just going postal and are restraining ourselves to just ridicule and mockery is actually a major point for us. I think we’re actually showing considerable restraint.
See, atheists don’t picket funerals, bomb churches, or practice violence on those who don’t accept evolution. We don’t go to Sunday School and insist that biology be taught alongside or replace creationism. We really just want to be left alone and explore how things work, but we’re not. We still have to deal with the scorn and the vilification. It’s no longer socially acceptable to attack people of color or women, and it’s becoming similarly wrong to be homophobic. However atheists are still fair game. Well, we have to defend ourselves somehow, and since they won’t look at the evidence of many things, all we have is ridicule. If enough people beat a dog, the next person who approaches might be snapped at. Until there’s less dog-beating going on in general, this is to be expected.
So we write our words and speak our minds and we know that each time we do, we are to expect a torrent of replies filled with incorrect assumptions, misconceptions, misunderstandings, and irrelevant tangents. Wading through that miasma every time is tiresome and we become worn out from having to constantly explain and defend ourselves and eventually we say fuck it and resort to easy ridicule. Even when we explain clearly, we get the same barrage.
So, if some of you kinder and more reasonable souls get caught in the crossfire, we do very sincerely apologize, but there is one thing you could do to help. Explain to your fellow brethren that we don’t deserve their derision and maybe exhort them to be more “Christ-like” in their dealings with us. I don’t mean to bring a sword rather than peace (yes, he said it, look it up), but more like the forgiveness and love thy enemy type of thing. Or maybe the Golden Rule. If more believers could simply deal with us in a rational manner, that would really help everyone out.
When we seek to find out how things work in the universe, it’s not with the desire to attack anyone’s beliefs. We just want to see how things really work. If the evidence that comes from this exploration happens to disprove some beliefs, it is not our fault. It’s just reality. We’re just trying to share it because the rational reaction to such a thing would be “Oh! So that’s how that works! Good to know! Maybe we can use this constructively somehow to improve our lives!” Not, “You are evil and hellbound! How dare you question God!!” “But, um, we have the evidence right here, look, I’ll show you…” “No! You’re wrong! I don’t care about your “evidence” or “facts”, you’re just wrong and I KNOW IT!!”
See what we have to deal with? For God’s sake, give us a break.
© 2015 William Suphan
- Yes Never Means No
- Changing Systems